A single spark can start a prairie fire. Mao Zedong quoted that proverb in 1930, 19 years before the Communist Party seized power in China. A single spark set off a series of huge fires and explosions on August 12 in Binhai, a district in Tianjin. The city is the fifth largest in the country, on the coast, 30 minutes by fast train from Beijing. What will the spark ultimately ignite in the capital?
At the moment, no one can say with certainty what started the fire in the warehouse belonging to Rui Hai International Logistics. What is certain, in any case, is the Tianjin Harbor fire department received the order to extinguish it around 10:50 p.m.
The fourth and fifth divisions jumped on the fire trucks. Among them was 20-year-old Lei Chi. In a photo, his face looks soft and friendly. His aunt would later say on the telephone that he was funny and liked to make jokes. Whenever she urged him to find a girlfriend, he replied: "But I’m too young for that!" Lei, like most of his group, was not a trained firefighter but rather a volunteer. He understood little about firefighting. Normally he was entrusted with cleaning jobs.
The firefighters aimed their water hoses at the warehouse. They had no way of knowing that chemicals stored on the site could react violently with water.
Minutes later, two massive explosions rocked the city. They ripped an enormous crater in the ground. Later, state-run media would write that, together, the detonations developed the force of 53 Tomahawk cruise missiles exploding. The shock wave spread out, bursting windows in high-rise buildings within a radius of three kilometers (1.86 miles), sending fragments of glass and debris flying like shrapnel, injuring people sleeping, eating, arguing or making love in their apartments. A gigantic mushroom cloud spread across the sky.
Almost a week later, authorities would report 114 dead and 70 people missing, among them the 20-year-old Lei Chi.
Whether water from the firefighters’ hoses was the cause of the catastrophe is not certain at the moment. The existence of certain chemicals that were supposedly in the warehouse at least makes it probable. Calcium carbide, for example. If it becomes wet, it forms flammable acetylene, which is also known as welding gas. Sodium nitrate, also stored in Binhai, has the potential to release an incendiary gas when it comes in contact with water.
One thing is certain: hydrogen cyanide kills.The Nazis killed their victims in extermination camps with hydrogen cyanide under the name Zyklon B.
The enormous power of the detonation, however, suggests that another material stored there was involved: ammonium nitrate, a substance used in the production of explosives that detonate with devastating force.
Moreover, there was potassium nitrate in Binhai, or saltpeter. In and of itself, it’s not an explosive, but in combination with other chemicals it can also develop explosive power. Who knows what else was kept in the area of the fire. A senior official talks of a total of 3,000 tons of 40 dangerous substances.
The day after the catastrophe, journalist He Xiao-xin traveled on his own to the accident site, knowing full well that what he saw was likely to be censored. He managed to get into the restricted security area. The photos he took look like they are from a war zone. Charred apartment buildings, kilometers of parked cars burned down to their steel skeletons. “They looked like demons that had just crawled out of hell,” he wrote. He was thinking just one word the whole time: Chernobyl. His photos were seen only a short time on the Chinese Internet, then they were deleted.
The catastrophe didn’t end with the explosions. Sodium cyanide hasn’t finished playing out its fiendish role. The gas that it releases is the highly toxic, whose aqueous solution is the infamous hydrogen cyanide. It is possible that the fire department’s water liquified a portion of the gaseous hydrogen cyanide, so that it subsequently was able to leak into the ground and possibly the groundwater.
Such cyanide toxins don’t last long in the atmosphere, but they can take hundreds of years to decompose in the ground. During that time, substances are continually released that can endanger people, animals and plants. Exactly which compounds, in what amounts and when – no one knows at present. Everything depends on the course the explosions and fires took, the composition of the chemical cocktails, the properties of the soil and the amount of water.
One thing is certain: hydrogen cyanide kills. Previous accidents with the poison in other countries have cost the lives of thousands of birds and fish. The fatal dose can be small. If hydrogen cyanide gets into the human body, the poison blocks the release of oxygen from blood to tissue. Toxicologists speak of “inner asphyxiation.” The Nazis killed their victims in extermination camps with hydrogen cyanide under the name Zyklon B.
According to official information, increased levels of cyanide have been measured in Binhai. The authorities have had the accident site evacuated within a radius of three kilometers, and sewer canals have been blocked. Experts fear rain could spread the poison, so clouds are being seeded with silver iodide so rain falls outside the designated area. The officials assure that “only small amounts” have been released, and air and water outside the zone were safe.
Catastrophes like this cut deeply into the inner life of those who experience them. Among them is a retiree named Li. When the blasts ripped through the night in Binhai, he felt a tremendous shock wave, as he later said via a telephone interview. At the time, Mr. Li was in a five-star hotel, only half an hour’s drive from the accident site. His son had lodged him there because the apartment the son had bought him was being renovated at the time. Ever since Sunday, says Mr. Li, he has been noticing a strange smell in his hotel room. Somehow acidic. He hadn’t even opened the window, but the stench still got in.
Mr. Li is now coughing often. What he doesn’t know is that the respiratory poison TDI was also stored in Binhai.
Hotel employees have told him they aren’t allowed to mention the explosion in the presences of the guests. Orders from above. If asked about the smell, they are supposed to say it is because of the toilets. “Please try flushing again.” To be on the safe side, Mr. Li doesn’t go outside and has his meals brought in by a delivery service. The deliverymen complain of sore throats.
All civil servants, says Mr. Li, have been instructed not to leave Binhai. He sees them going to work in the mornings wearing sunglasses, facemasks and, despite the heat, long-sleeve shirts. Mr. Li doesn’t believe the official death toll. In his opinion, it must be more than a thousand. “Everybody was home at eleven o’clock at night. And an awful lot of people live here.”
Mr. Meng lives a bit farther way, around 50 kilometers away from the blast site. The people in Tianjin, he says on the telephone, have no fear. “They watch the state news, besides the wind is blowing in the direction of the sea.” He is still drinking the water from the tap. “Is the bottled water any safer? I don’t believe anyone anyway, neither the government nor the media.”
The message is 'trust the central government, have patience, don’t believe rumors.'
The authorities are now fighting on two fronts. They have to deal with the catastrophe and its effect on the perceptions of the Chinese public. The day after the explosion, the local TV station showed a Korean television series and patriotic animated film series. The freelance writer Wang Wusi wrote in an article online (that was soon be deleted): “The whole world is looking at Tianjin, Tianjin is looking at comic series.” Tianjin, wrote Mr. Wang, is “a city without news.”
Propaganda officials are pressing the media to accept reports “only from the state news agency Xinhua and authorized media.” On Saturday, China’s Internet authority announced it had shut down or temporarily blocked 50 websites spreading rumors. At the same time, it deleted hundreds of user accounts in social media networks, including the accounts of well-known bloggers who were “sowing panic by comparing the explosions to the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
Police in Tianjin reported the arrest of 18-year-old who had in an online posting put the number of dead at 1,300. He must remain in custody for five days. Fu King-wa, a journalism professor at the University of Hong Kong who has developed a censorship tracker called Weibo-scope, said the extent of censorship has increased tenfold.
The website of Rui Hai International Logistics, which owned the warehouse, has been deleted. The news agency Xinhua wrote that Rui Hai reportedly was in the business of storing and distributing dangerous goods in the harbor of Tianjin. The four-year-old firm had two storage sites for hazardous commodities; one was directly next to an office building.
The Beijing News reported in an article Monday that one of the Rui Hai shareholders was named Dong, and his late father was the former chief of police in Tianjin. (The article was subsequently deleted.) A certain Mr. Li held another 55 percent of the shares, and a certain official named Mr. Shu owned the rest. This particular Mr. Shu, on the other hand, told the financial website Prism that he had nothing to do with the business of the company. He had simple lent a friend his personal identity card. This lack of transparency is newsworthy itself. The storing of dangerous materials prohibits any lack of disclosure.
The Beijing News also wrote that there are no fixed safety zones for dangerous goods in China. There’s only a technical directive from 2001 that such storage places must keep at least a kilometer away from public buildings, transport lines or factories. In Binhai, however, there was not only a freeway and railway tracts but also a residential complex within 600 meters of the storage area. The residents living nearby say they knew nothing of the explosive chemicals in their neighborhood.
It’s possible there were problems within the complex bureaucracy about monitoring the firm, the Beijing News also reported. According to media reports, the list of materials made available to customs clearance officials wasn’t identical to one Rui Hai employees recorded. Investigators confirm that over 700 tons of sodium cyanide were stored in the warehouses – that’s 70 times the amount the company was allowed. The Beijing News said the chemicals were illegally stored in “metal cans and wooden crates.”
The Chinese leadership is waging a battle over information that is aimed primarily at controlling emotions. What do the people feel? Emotion or rage? Party-affiliated media are presenting a lot of stories about heroic firefighters, doctors and nurses. The Chinese premier has traveled to the accident site and praised the emergency personnel. Internet users are posting digital candles as a sign of concern and dismay.
Jiajia, a Beijing journalist, wrote an angry article on a social media website. “Stop lighting your candles, take a leather whip and hit those hard who have neglected their responsibilities and treat human lives like dirt.” Lighting candles is easy, the author wrote. “It is all we are allowed.” This article, too, will soon disappear.
The Communist Party’s central organ, the People’s Daily, published an article Sunday that said the government will investigate the case in detail and punish the guilty. “Why should the government attempt to cover something up?” Hasn’t it just deprived many tigers, meaning top officials, of power due to corruption? The message is trust the central government, have patience, don’t believe rumors.
Meanwhile, making the rounds on social media is an older article by the Beijing journalism professor, Hu Yong. “Rumors,” he wrote, “are a form of social protest. An arrow against the government.” And when the government censors, the people become all the more curious.
In other words, the explosion’s shock wave has reached Beijing. On Sunday, President Xi Jinping declared the accident was a bloody lesson that won’t be forgotten.
Mr. Xi is the most powerful leader China has seen in a long time. He has recognized that the party is suffering from a crisis of legitimacy and has swore to strengthen its authority. He has initiated an anti-corruption campaign that has gained him a lot of sympathy and support from the people, and that allows him to do away with his opponents within the party. He has proclaimed “the Chinese dream.” In newspapers, he can be seen next to world leaders and he, a stately man, always appears a little bigger than the others. Many are proud of him. His message to the people is: Trust me.
And they trusted him and invested their money in the stock exchange – until the recent upheaval when a lot of money was lost. The economy is faltering. And now, the explosion in Tianjin. Where will it all lead? It won’t lead to the president’s downfall. And yet it is nourishing the distrust that has long been fomenting, a distrust that Mr. Xi wanted to wipe away.
“Mamu” is a Chinese word that means numb and insensitive, and the word is used constantly. That’s because, alongside all the euphoria of moving up, many Chinese are perceiving the polluted air, the arbitrariness, and the misuse of power. One half of your brain is angry, the other knows you can’t do anything anyway – that’s how a good friend described it. You feel powerless, mamu. And haven’t we been living in China for thousands of years that way?
The latest news out of Binhai is a military hospital doctor is secretly telling everyone that they should get out the place as fast as possible. It is simply too dangerous there.
This article first appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: [email protected]